Jatropha Biofuel

Jatropha Biodiesel Companies Get Serious

Written by Brian Hicks
Posted July 17, 2009

I've never been at such a loss for words... One word, in fact: Jatropha.

It was a few years back at a biofuels conference in Colombia. Between sessions, a Mexican farmer from the southern state of Chiapas and an Israeli drip irrigation pioneer were trying to compare notes about the cultivation of an oil-rich shrub called jatropha. But the language barrier stood in the way of their business. 

Even though I spoke both of their languages, I found myself stuck in a vocabulary rut no pocket dictionary could get me out of.  I translated around the word, leaving jatropha as the conversational pivot point in each interlocutor's native tongue.

I set immediately to learning about jatropha biofuel that day. As we sweat through the middle months of 2009, the world is learning more about it, too.

What is Jatropha Biofuel?

The jatropha plant (known more commonly in English as physic nut) is abundant, if overlooked. Like so many of the world's plants, jatropha thrives in the biologically diverse climates of Africa, southern North America, and the Caribbean. From its original location Central America—the Mexican farmer's backyard—and the Caribbean islands, seafaring Europeans soon began propagating jatropha along their routes.

India, where the jatropha was introduced by Portuguese traders centuries ago, is now a hotbed for jatropha-based biodiesel. The weedy plant's potential for nuisance is matched only by its utility, as India's national rail operator has found.

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The railroad between Mumbai (Bombay) and Delhi is planted with jatropha along its course, and the locomotives running through the red-blossomed bushes are partly powered by the plant. 15-20% percent of the fuel used on the Mumbai-Delhi line is derived from jatropha extract, proving the usefulness of this obscure bush.

In Australia, where it is considered a major weed, jatropha is called the "bellyache bush." Repulsive as that sounds, jatropha's gastronomic downfall is its energy advantage.

Biofuel feedstocks like corn, soy, and sugar are less than optimal precisely because they are edible.

Food and commodity price speculation led to riots in Mexico and other countries, where corn became the center of a food vs. fuel tug-o-war in 2008. In response, the country's legislature passed a law limiting feedstocks to non-food crops. Now, Mexican president Felipe Calderon is spearheading a drive for research and large-scale production in countries where jatropha can be grown.

Colombia and Mexico have committed $936,000 to a biodiesel processing facility in southern Mexico, mainly devoted to jatropha.

All in all, we can expect billions to flow into jatropha research and ventures in the next few years.

Even now, jatropha is moving quickly from the planning stage to practical inclusion in the world's transportation fuel mix.

From "Bellyache Bush" to Cash Crop

Representatives from Continental Airlines announced that the company's January biofuel test on a Boeing 737-800 delivered an increase of 1.1 percent in fuel efficiency, and a 60 to 80 percent reduction in emissions compared to traditional jet fuel.

A spokesman for the International Air Transport Association said, "The biofuel mix actually ran more efficiently and burned less fuel in total than the conventional (jet-fuel powered) engine." The IATA is aiming for a 10% renewable energy component in total global aviation fuel used by 2017.

Not just Continental but also Boeing and GE Aviation participated in the tests, and encouraging results surely mean more R&D to come.

As for the path to commercial success for individual jatropha biofuels companies, California's Abundant Biofuels has set a 600 billion gallon target for jatropha biodiesel production by 2012. As the hearty plant grows wild, Abundant is working not only to maximize output but also to get maintenance during the growing process down to a bare minimum so that harvesting can be the firm's main research focus.

New World farmers at Jamestown called tobacco "finicky" because it requires painstaking care and massive work crews. Corn is very water-intensive, making it a strain not only on food supply but also on the most precious resource of all.

Jatropha does just fine without human hands to tend it. But it is necessary for more companies and consumers to learn about jatropha so we can see what the real possibilities are.

We'll keep you up to date as we follow jatropha in every step from "bellyache bush" to 21st century cash crop.

Regards,

Sam Hopkins

Sam Hopkins